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Are free VPNs really that bad? How free VPNs profit from their users

Verified by Nick Jones Editor-in-Chief

Is there such a thing as a free VPN? This article explores the steep potential price hidden behind the mask of zero cost

Using a free Virtual Private Network (VPN) has become commonplace for many internet users. It promises to bring all privacy and security benefits of a VPN at no cost. Do they really deliver on this promise? How do free VPNs make money? 

A ProPrivacy survey established that out of more than 1.25 billion downloads of consumer VPNs on the Google Play Store alone, a staggering 81.4 million were linked to potentially risky apps. Moreover, the number of users leaking information was estimated at an alarming 39 million. 

It’s critical to understand the allure of ‘free’ VPNs. In the world of VPNs , they might sometimes come with a steep hidden price tag and considerable hazards. We’ll explore the shortcomings and risks you face when opting for such solutions.

How free VPNs make money from their users

In general, VPNs collect two types of user data: connection logs and usage logs. While the former are required for troubleshooting and service improvement, the latter give additional information about the user’s activities online, such as visited sites, downloaded information, online interactions, and locations. 

Feeless as they may claim to be, free VPNs can largely profit from the information they collect. Let’s look at the various monetisation strategies some free services employ.

Selling user data

Free VPNs often utilise various data-tracking technologies such as cookies, web beacons, and tracking pixels to monitor your online activity. These digital footprints, coupled with the personal information you provide during registration (your name, address and email), are frequently repackaged and sold to advertisers or data brokers. In fact, the above-mentioned ProPrivacy research reports 40 per cent of free VPNs on the Google Play Store can leak personally identifiable data. 

Far from acting as guardians of your privacy, such free VPNs could potentially auction off intricate details of your life and preferences to the highest bidder. Selling user data may extend to sharing your email with third-party businesses, opening the floodgates to an influx of spam and unwanted emails. The ramifications go beyond a cluttered inbox – you’re also left vulnerable to phishing emails and other malicious activities, adding significant risk to the perceived convenience of free VPNs.

Despite being disturbing and unethical, these practices are legal if disclosed in the VPN’s privacy policy and agreed to by the user. The discrepancies between the privacy claims and the privacy policy of free VPNs actually gave rise to a complaint against HotSpot Shield Free VPN filed with the Federal Trade Commission in the US. Although it hasn’t been settled yet, this case highlights the importance of careful consideration of the agreements users enter into. 

Targeted ads

By nature of their business model, free VPNs often need to compensate for the lack of user subscription fees. One common method is leveraging the vast data they gather for advertising purposes.

They may directly use your data for marketing. Anytime you log in or search for something online that piques your interest, the VPN takes note. This data then informs the types of ads they present to you and how they can do so most efficiently. Touch VPN, for example, offers only free services, and its revenue is generated by in-app ads and purchases only.

Advertisers pay to feature ads within VPN apps, leading to users being flooded with pop-up ads. These ads are often personalised, which suggests the VPN has shared your data with the advertisers, potentially including the browsing history you intended to safeguard. This unfortunate paradox illustrates how the tool you trusted to maintain your privacy could instead be violating it for profit.

Using cookies to track you online

Contrary to the promise of anonymity, many free VPNs track users’ online activities, using connection and usage logs to profile user habits and interests.

As mentioned above, browser cookies, web beacons, and tracking pixels are common tools for monitoring online behaviour. While these tools keep tabs on your online activities, they’re often invisible. 

As a result, even though you may believe you’re navigating the web anonymously, your online activities could be continually monitored, with some free VPNs even selling this data to third parties. This practice fundamentally undermines the intended purpose of a VPN – to protect your online privacy.

Using a free VPN could also lead to legal implications if it is based in one of the Five, Nine, or 14 Eyes alliance countries, obliging them to share user data with government agencies upon request. Therefore, while free VPNs might seem tempting, they often come with hidden costs to your privacy and potentially even your legal standing.

Upselling tactics

While free VPN services can offer a useful starting point, many employ upselling tactics to encourage users to switch to their paid plans. These methods often limit the free service, intending to make the premium offering more appealing. Upselling tactics could include:

  • Data limits: Many free VPNs will restrict the amount of data you can use or throttle your connection speed. For example, Windscribe and Hide.me impose a 2GB and 10GB monthly data cap respectively, and with Hotspot Shield, users are limited to 500MB daily. Once you’ve reached this limit, you’ll likely be nudged to upgrade to a premium plan, promising unlimited data usage and faster speeds.
  • Restricting geo-blocked sites: Free VPNs may limit the servers or countries you can connect to, barring you from accessing certain websites or services locked to specific geographic locations. For instance, Opera VPN limits the server selection to three regions for its free plan. If you wish to access these restricted sites, you’ll often find yourself being prompted to upgrade to a paid plan with a wider range of server access.
  • Spam email: Finally, you may find your inbox inundated with promotional emails highlighting the limitations of the free plan while extolling the virtues of the premium services. Although these emails are part of the VPN provider’s marketing strategy, the volume and content can sometimes cross into the realm of spam.

Ultimately, all these upselling tactics aim to guide you towards paying for premium services by emphasising the potential benefits of paid VPN services.

Infecting your device with malware

Alarmingly, some free VPNs jeopardise the security of your device by covertly unloading malware, including spyware or ransomware, onto your computer, tablet, or smartphone, potentially causing significant damage.

Using malware, VPNs may gain complete control over your device, enabling unrestricted access to your stored data. From your device’s information and location data to more personal details such as emails, messages, and phone numbers, all data stored in your device can be extracted, edited, modified, and deleted.

A stark example of fraudulent tactics to make profits is the case of Hola, a VPN service known to utilise malware to transform its free users’ devices into exit nodes or VPN servers. As a peer-to-peer proxy service, Hola utilised users’ bandwidths and IP addresses to cater to its paying customers without knowledge or consent.

Getting you to advertise them on your social network feed

Sometimes, free VPNs encourage their users to advertise their services on social media. They might offer perks like extra data or faster connection speeds if you post about them on sites like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

Here’s how it usually works: the free VPN asks you to mention their service on your social media, perhaps with a good review or a recommendation to your friends. In return, you get some benefits from the service.

This might seem like a fair swap, but keep in mind that you’re essentially providing the VPN with free advertising. It’s important to think about what you’re doing. Promoting a free VPN service could encourage others to use a service that might put their online privacy or safety at risk. Always read the small print and consider the potential impact before you agree to promote any service.

Selling your bandwidth to paying users

Like Hola, which we discussed above, some free VPNs can use your internet connection to benefit their paying customers. This is particularly relevant when a VPN offers both a free and a paid version. While you, as a free user, can connect to the internet without any obvious limitations, the VPN could be using your connection in unexpected ways.

An example of this tactic is when a VPN takes your unused internet capacity, essentially your “bandwidth”, and passes it to their paying customers. In simpler terms, the VPN uses your internet resources to improve the service for those who pay, creating a profit from this exchange.

To avoid this, consider switching to the VPN’s paid version if they have one. However, not all VPNs openly admit to this practice, which means you may not be aware if your device’s connection is being used to enhance someone else’s browsing experience.

Creating botnets

A botnet is a cluster of interconnected computers synchronised to carry out harmful actions. Individual machines within this network, called “bots”, are manipulated by a third party to circulate malware, launch attacks, or distribute spam. The control often infiltrates the machines through viruses or worms, converting them into “zombies” to serve malicious intents.

In addition to utilising their users’ bandwidths, Hola permitted free users’ devices to become part of a large botnet used for anonymous malware attacks. Not only does this misuse place your device at risk, but it can also get you involved in potentially harmful online activities stemming from the supposed safety of a free VPN service.

Despite the publicity of this incident, some free VPNs continue these practices unchecked, posing a substantial risk to their users.

Free VPNs vs paid: You get what you pay for

In comparing free and paid VPN services, it’s important to consider several crucial factors, such as data limits, the number of servers, and the number of locations. Let’s look at two popular providers: Windscribe’s free version and Surfshark’s paid service.

Feature Windscribe free Surfshark paid
Data limit 2 – 15GB/month: 2GB/month standard; up to 10GB/month if registered with an email; plus 5GB/month if the user tweets about Windscribe Unlimited
Number of servers 11 3,200
Number of locations 11 100

Unlike the Surfshark paid service offering an unlimited data allowance enabling you to stream, download, and surf as much as you like, Windscribe’s free VPN service offers a monthly data limit of 2GB. Even if you have registered with your email, tweeted about Windscribe, and are therefore provided with the maximum data allowance of 15GB per month, it could be a constraint for a heavy user.

In terms of server options, you can connect to 11 different servers across 11 locations with Windscribe’s free version. While this might seem adequate for casual browsing, it can be limiting if you require more extensive access. On the other hand, with a subscription to Surfshark’s paid VPN service, you have access to more than 3,000 servers located in more than 100 locations worldwide, offering a much more extensive network and freedom to its users.

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Frequently asked questions

A free VPN works by masking your actual IP address, letting you access the internet via a server managed by the VPN service. It encrypts your data, ensuring your online activity remains private. However, you should be cautious, as some free VPNs may monetise their services by selling your data or offering slower, less reliable connections.

The most secure VPN in our recent comprehensive tests for 2023 is NordVPN, which also happens to take the top spot on our list of the best VPNs. It stands out for its superior privacy protection, making it the safest option available. As a well-established provider in the VPN market, NordVPN offers advanced security features, including double VPN encryption for added privacy and private DNS protection to prevent hijacking. It has adopted a strict no-logs policy – which has been independently audited – to ensure your online activities remain private. Plus, it offers impressive performance with 5,731 servers in 60 countries.

Free VPNs may seem appealing, but they often sacrifice security and privacy due to limited resources. These services might sell your data or flood you with relentless ads. They also have a reputation for questionable data-sharing practices, typically masked by unclear policies. 

The usage of outdated or weak encryption protocols further exposes you to potential online threats. Therefore, the risks associated with free VPNs significantly outweigh the benefits, making paid, reputable VPN services a far safer choice for maintaining online privacy and security.

Summary

While free VPNs may seem enticing, the risks associated with their use are significant. From compromising user privacy through the sale of data to third parties to the potential for targeted advertising and even serious security breaches, the dangers outweigh the benefits. 

A paid VPN, on the other hand, offers robust security, reliable performance, and dedicated support, all without jeopardising your data. So, investing in a reputable paid VPN is undoubtedly worth the money, giving you peace of mind and a safer, more secure online experience.

Round up of today’s best VPN deals
NordVPN 2 year £2.49 /Month
£2.49 /Month
Surfshark 24 month £1.79 /Month
£1.79 /Month
ExpressVPN 12 month £6.77 /Month
£6.77 /Month
CyberGhost 2 year £1.78 /Month
£1.78 /Month
Proton 2 year £4.27 /Month
£4.27 /Month
PIA 2 year £1.57 /Month
£1.57 /Month
Atlas 2 year £1.34 /Month
£1.34 /Month
PrivadoVPN 2 year £1.99 /Month
£1.99 /Month
Windscribe 12 month £4.53 /Month
£4.53 /Month
IPVanish 2 year £3.58 /Month
£3.58 /Month

Mariana is an experienced technology writer specialising in web and internet technology. She writes about cyber security, including VPN; web development; and software engineering. She has been writing since 2006 and held a position of English lecturer at Technical University of Varna in Bulgaria until 2022, working in a variety of educational fields.

For the Independent Advisor, Mariana writes about the usefulness of VPNs and how people can protect themselves and their data online.

Nick Jones

Editor in Chief

Nick Jones is a highly experienced consumer journalist and editor, who has been writing and producing content for print and online media for over 25 years.

He has worked at some of the UK’s leading publishers including Future Publishing, Highbury Entertainment, and Imagine Publishing, with publications as diverse as Homebuilding & Renovating, TechRadar, and Creative Bloq, writing and editing content for audiences whose interests include history, computing, gaming, films, and science. He’s also produced a number of podcasts in the technology, science, gaming, and true crime genres.

Nick has also enjoyed a highly successful career in content marketing, working in a variety of topics such as health, technology, and finance, with market-leading global companies including Cisco, Pfizer, Santander, and Virgin Media.

Now the Editor-in-Chief of the Independent Advisor, Nick is involved in all aspects of the site’s content, where his expertise in finance, technology, and home products informs every article that’s published on-site. He takes a hands-on approach with our VPN content, penning a number of the articles himself, and verifying that everything we publish in this topic is accurate.

Whatever the area of interest he’s worked in, Nick has always been a consumer champion, helping people find the best deals and give them the information they need to make an informed buying decision.